The trend for television dramas about missing children continues with The Disappearance, a French Canadian drama about a family’s grief when a young boy vanishes. DQ chats with writer Geneviève Simard and the production team behind the six-part limited series.
When French-language drama The Disappearance was dropped by its Quebec broadcaster while still in development, it could have been an early end for the six-part series about the struggle facing a family when a young boy goes missing.
It’s to Productions Casablanca’s credit, however, that it persevered with the project and found a way to get it on screen – by translating it into English. Producer Joanne Forgues had the idea to switch languages and the drama was successfully resuscitated when Bell Media-owned CTV commissioned the full series.
Created and written by Normand Daneau and Geneviève Simard, The Disappearance opens on Anthony’s 10th birthday. Every year, his grandfather creates a treasure hunt for him to mark the special day, but this time he doesn’t return. Two years after the police investigation went cold, a strange event leads to the case being reopened.
The cast includes Peter Coyote (Sphere), Joanne Kelly (Warehouse 13), Neil Napier (Helix), Kevin Parent (The Calling), Judith Baribeau (21 Thunder) and Camille Sullivan (The Man in the High Castle).
By exploring the intimate relationships of a family torn apart by a missing child, Charles Ohayon, head of international sales at Productions Casablanca, says this series goes beyond other shows with a similar concept. “It’s a very human story,” he says.
Simard adds: “We’re not following the cops like in other shows. It’s really the family that we’re following. There are family secrets that bring the investigation forward.”
Simard wrote the series with Daneau, her former real-life partner, after the birth of their child. They were thinking of writing something together and began questioning what a parent’s worst nightmare would be.
“Having a child who is dead is a tragedy but not knowing where they are must create so much anguish,” she explains. “We wrote one episode and went to see Joanne. She took the project but we developed it with a French channel in Quebec, it was supposed to be in French, but after we developed three episodes with them, they changed direction [and dropped the series], so we looked elsewhere in Quebec. Then Joanne had the brilliant idea to translate it.”
Ohayon describes that decision as a “gamble,” but one that certainly paid off after NBCUniversal came on board the series, boosting its shooting budget and handling sales in France (13ème rue), the UK (Universal), the US (WGN America) and, ironically, Quebec, where it aired on Super Écran. It was also screened part of the International Panorama competition at Series Mania 2018.
“The idea was really to translate it and see if it had a chance through English Canada in terms of finding a network,” he says. “So it was a gamble to have them translate it.”
The producers cold-called CTV, who came back within a week with a positive decision. “It went very fast,” Ohayon continues. “Within a matter of weeks we signed a development deal for the next three episodes. Three months later, which is very unusual, Joanne had the green light to go into production, before the scripts were finished.”
At this point, Simard admits she and Daneau had the ending in place but weren’t sure how to get there. “It’s a really complex story with a lot of twists,” she notes. “It has to be very tight so there was a lot of brainstorming. For Normand, this was his first series. I have written on others. We almost did everything together. We started writing the scripts before we knew how it would end. We wrote one episode and took it to Joanne but we never expected it to go very far. Our dream was it would air in French in Quebec.”
It was CTV that introduced The Disappearance to production giant NBCUniversal (NBCU), with Michael Edelstein, former president of NBCU International Studios calling to admit his team was in love with the project. “Then he said, ‘I have one problem – your budget is not high enough,’” OHayon recalls. “That’s the first time in 30 years I have ever heard that one. They came onboard based on scripts, the series was not even shot yet. For us in Quebec, that’s the first time this has ever happened, that a major US network would take on distribution based on scripts and not on shooting.”
Filming took place in Montreal, where the series used an original backdrop why retaining its original French flavour.
“We had cultural differences between French Canada and English Canada and also between Canada and the US, so we had to try and put that all in a melting pot and come up with something that pleases the three cultures,” Ohayon says. “I would say we won most of the battles. Once we explained and discussed it, we were able to agree on most things. Sometimes they had very good points and we went along with their suggestions and vice versa. It worked very well in the end.”
In Quebec, OHaylon says there is a constant creative struggle to produce content for eight million French-speaking people surrounded by 300 million English speakers.
“The only way for us to survive is to be strong, creative and innovative and that’s what happens – and we do it with very little amounts of money,” he notes, comparing budgets of between C$500,000 [US$378,000] and C$700,000 per hour in French Canada compared with C$2.2m and C$2.6m in English Canada.
“Why? Because English-language productions can be sold and exported around the world. The French language we have cannot be exported as easily, even in France, because it’s not the same French. It’s a very limited market. The revenues for broadcasters are decreasing so there’s a limited amount of money, yet they want more. So budgets are going down but everything within the budget is increasing because of union agreements, whether it’s writers, directors or crew. So we struggle to survive.”
Angela Griffin and Shenae Grimes-Beech team up to star in Canadian detective drama The Detail. They tell DQ about playing cops and the chance to join a female-led production.
The Detail could not be more timely. As the fallout from Hollywood’s sexual harassment scandal continues, alongside the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns and the row over gender pay inequality, this Canadian crime series stands apart as a female-led production.
Starring Angela Griffin, Shenae Grimes-Beech and Wendy Crewson, the story details the messy realities of cop life – both on and off the job – for detectives who work tirelessly to solve cases while navigating the complicated demands of their personal lives.
Behind the camera, female writers, directors, producers and consultants drive the series, which is described as depicting topical stories through a distinctly and unapologetically female lens. Key personnel include executive producer and co-showrunner Ley Lukins, who also developed the series; executive producers Ilana Frank, Linda Pope, Sally Wainwright, Nicola Shindler and Jocelyn Hamilton; co-executive producer Sonia Hosko; consulting producer Kathy Avrich Johnson; and writers Naledi Jackson, Sandra Chwialkowska, Katrina Saville and Sarah Goodman. Directors on the series, produced by ICF Films and distributed by Entertainment One, include Jordan Canning and Sara St Onge.
Other creative talent includes co-showrunner Adam Pettle and co-executive producer director Gregory Smith, writers Graeme Stewart, Joe Bernice and Matt Doyle, and directors Kelly Makin, Grant Harvey, John Fawcett and James Genn.
When DQ sits down with Griffin and Grimes-Beech, it is seven months since filming wrapped on the eight-part series, which launches on Canada’s CTV on March 25 and will air on ION TV in the US. But Griffin explicitly remembers her excitement at the first read-through for the show.
“It felt like the start of something really special,” she says. “There was such a good vibe about the whole job, which stayed for the entire job. There was such a good energy about it. It’s exciting being in a room full of women, I’ve got to say. Being sat around a table where I’m not the girlfriend or the wife was super cool. And then you’ve got all these great female directors and producers.
“I think it’s amazing but I also think, ‘Yes, it should be.’ I almost don’t want to big it up too much because that should just be the norm, but I’m really proud to be part of the show and part of something that is getting it right.”
Grimes-Beech picks up: “That’s one of the things I think we all loved about the show so much. It’s never, like, the female boss. It’s never something that is punctuated. It just ‘is,’ because why the fuck wouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t women be treated as complete equals? It’s a laughable concept to think that’s not a reality for a lot of people.”
Griffin, best known for her long-running role on UK soap Coronation Street, plays Detective Stevie Hall, an experienced interrogator dealing with a thorny family life. Grimes-Beech, meanwhile, is Detective Jacqueline ‘Jack’ Cooper, a street-smart rookie with a personal life that threatens to eclipse her day job.
That work-life balance is a key element of the series, which sees procedural crime-of-the-week storylines play out against the backdrop of the detectives’ individual family lives and examines how the cases they face impact their home life.
It’s what makes The Detail stand out for Griffin, who says she wants to see characters on screen juggle the daily demands she faces in her own life. “And I actually really like it when people don’t handle it, because it is impossible,” she admits. “I thoroughly enjoy watching imperfect lives because it makes me feel better about my own. It makes me feel like I’m not a complete failure. Certainly for Stevie, she doesn’t get it right all the time when it comes to that balance. Going forward, I’d like to see her struggle more with it, because sometimes she does manage to pull it out of the bag. I’d like to up that ante a bit more.”
Grimes-Beech, meanwhile, prefers the crime element of the series, which she says she finds fascinating. “I don’t often watch dramas that are strictly about people’s personal lives but when I watched our preview back, I enjoyed the personal stuff because it really gives you something to fall in love with your character for. People are going to fall in love with the characters as well and that will keep them hooked.”
That’s not to say that the police element wasn’t important too. “I loved it,” Grimes-Beech says about the opportunity to play a cop. “One of my favourite moments was where we were busting into a trailer and we had our army dude on set with us and he was walking us through how to do it properly. It was so cool, it makes you feel so official.”
For Griffin, the opportunity was amped up by the chance to have a gun, something British crime dramas notably lack in comparison to their North American counterparts.
“I have wanted to be a cop with a gun for ever,” the actor says, noting that the only props she was allowed as DS Lizzy Mannox in ITV drama Lewis were a notepad and pencil. “As an actor, it doesn’t get much better for me. I’ve got personal stuff, I get to cry in a corner, I get to shoot people, I get to shout at people, I get to be a mum. Some people don’t want to do that; for me as an actor, it’s everything I have ever wanted.”
That wasn’t the only difference on set for Griffin, who is used to a vastly different production schedule on British shows such as Brief Encounters and Ordinary Lies. “It’s bizarre that two countries that speak the same language, that have similar-sized industries, could work in such different ways,” she muses. “The unionisation of the industry in North America as a whole makes it massively different. So certain people can’t do other jobs or double up on things – even the drivers have to be from the drivers’ union. You can’t just nip in a car with an AD [assistant director]. And they have hair and make-up – two people. In the UK, the make-up does the hair and that’s just really normal. It differs on so many different levels but I like both ways of working.”
In contrast, it was a much shorter shoot than usual for Grimes-Beech, who is more used to the year-long effort needed to produce a 22-episode season of a US network drama, such as The CW’s 90210. After five years on that show, and a five-year stint before that on DeGrassi, she’s since mixed things up with a range of feature and TV films. But with the small screen stronger than ever, the actor is happy to return to a potentially long-running series that affords her some security and the chance to pick up other projects on the side.
“While there’s no stability for an actor, I feel like a TV show is as close as it gets and I have so much appreciation and gratitude for a job like this that I didn’t have when I was young,” she says. “When you fall in love with a character and a show as much as I have with this one, you wish it will run forever. That’s not often the case.
“Back in the day, like five years ago, we all wanted to break out and do movies so badly that an Oscar was the ultimate dream. Now you’ve got Oscar winners on TV shows all the time – look at the cast of Big Little Lies. Are you kidding me! It’s mind-boggling and that’s not something anybody in the industry would have said would happen five years ago. With film, unless it’s a Marvel movie or whatever, no one’s making any money. Those are passion projects and TV allows you to fulfil those passions on the side without having to worry. It’s a different climate in the industry.”
For Griffin, it’s not lost on her that she has had to cross the Atlantic to find a leading role, following in the footsteps of other black British talent such as Damson Idris, Idris Elba and Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. “There’s some great stuff being made [in North America] and a lot of our British, particularly black British, talent is scoring really well out there,” she says, adding that there’s a simple way to ensure more black and ethnic minority talent can pick up leading roles. “Just see people for the parts,” the actor concludes. “It doesn’t have to have the word ‘black’ before it to have someone audition for it. You just open up your casting for everybody and you let everybody come.
“I love the fact I’m doing this show, I absolutely love it and it’s so exciting to be in Canada and I feel really lucky to have it. It would be quite nice to do a series in the UK where I can be one of the leads and see my children every single night and have the same depth, and I’m slightly sad I’ve had to go across the pond to do it.”
US star Kiefer Sutherland reveals why he elected to play the president in US drama Designated Survivor and what he learned from working on 24.
Best known for saving the day – and quite often the US president – in action drama 24, Kiefer Sutherland still finds himself spending plenty of time in the Oval Office.
Only now he plays the president as the star of ABC drama Designated Survivor. The political series sees Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, the US secretary of housing and urban development, rapidly promoted to become the leader of the free world after an explosion during the State of the Union address claims the lives of the incumbent and all other members of the US cabinet.
The drama, from creator David Guggenheim and producer Mark Gordon, debuted last September to more than 10 million viewers and a week later, it was handed a full season order of 22 episodes for the 2016/17 season.
It also airs on CTV in Canada and around the world on Netflix following deals with distributor Entertainment One (eOne).
Sutherland has built his career across television and film, with big-screen credits including Stand By Me, The Lost Boys, A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill. So when he gave a keynote address at television industry event Mipcom, DQ was in the audience to hear more from the London-born Canadian actor.
Sutherland hadn’t planned on joining another network drama…
My experience on 24 was the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. Having done a lot of smaller movies that no one ever saw, I remembered it was nice to have people watch what you do and enjoy it. So I was so grateful for that. Having said that, it was nine years, anywhere between 12 and 15 hours a day, five days a week, 10 months a year – it’s a lot of work, so when I did 24 I wasn’t aware of any of that.
When I agreed to do Designated Survivor, I was completely aware of that. So it was a big decision and when I first got the script, it was sent to me by Mark Gordon. We’ve been friends for 20 years and I was doing a film with Michelle Pfeiffer, a very small picture. I was getting into some music things, and taking on the responsibility of a television show was not in the forefront of my mind.
But his attitude changed when he read the pilot script…
I was going to give it what I call a cursory read – I was going to read it really quickly to gain enough information about the script to explain to Mark why I couldn’t do it. And I got to about page 25 and I went, “Fuck.” I knew I was potentially holding what I was going to be doing for 10 years if I was lucky, and I went back and re-read it. But the opposite thing happened – I got to the end almost praying it stayed as good as it was and David Guggenheim really wrote a script that spoke to me.
The actor could see similarities between Jack Bauer and Tom Kirkman…
It wasn’t until I actually started performing the character that I realised there was a real similarity to Jack Bauer I had not anticipated. Their skill set is very different. President Tom Kirkman probably doesn’t know how to load a gun, let alone shoot it. But the fact is both characters have a desire to serve and both characters are willing to take on a fight they know they can’t possibly win. That through line in both characters is something I obviously really relate to. I would like to aspire to be one of those people. It ended up being something that I knew if I chose not to do it for a lot of very reasonable reasons, I would really regret it. I do not regret the decision [to sign up] for a second.
Tom Kirkman was inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt, because Abraham Lincoln “would have been too obvious…”
One of the nice things about the character is he’s not even elected, he’s not even an elected member of the cabinet. He’s an architect who had very specific ideas about urban planning and affordable housing across the country and that’s how he became part of the cabinet. So he had no political aspirations. What is nice about this character is he can approach the country’s issues, domestic and abroad, with common sense and a sense of fairness and what he thinks is right or wrong, as opposed to a political agenda that’s been dictated by three years of campaigning. That is a really fresh point of view. Common sense is the foundation of the character, and when he becomes more political, that’s when he starts to make mistakes and that will be a constant thread in the character throughout the whole show.
As an exec producer of Designated Survivor, he sees himself as the show’s ambassador…
I was an exec producer on 24 as well and Joel Surnow [the creator of 24] taught me something: the writers had all the offices on the second floor of the stage where we shot, we never went up there and they never came down. As I’m experiencing on this show, that was very unique. I once asked Joel, “Why don’t you ever come down?” He said it was because he hired the people he wanted to do what they’re doing and he didn’t have to oversee everything because he hired the people that he really wanted to do it. It’s a really valuable lesson. Mark is the producer of this show; I work as an ambassador because of the amount of actors we do have coming in and out of the show. I try to make sure they’re comfortable if they’re having a problem with part of the script, I’ll try to work it out with them or direct them to who else to talk to. That’s really my role. I’m certainly not sitting in budget meetings or things like that.
The biggest problem on 24 was also the ‘star’ of the show…
When I first read this script [for Designated Survivor], as much as I was moved by the characters, I had learned a lot from 24 about what would potentially make the show great and what would not. 24’s real -ime aspect, which was in my opinion the real star of the show, was also a problem. We would paint ourselves into a corner in the storyline and it was almost every year, right around episode 14 or 15 and we’d have to do something wonky to get around it, but we’d make up for it in the last eight episodes. It was something we really had difficulty every year navigating and I think Howard Gordon would be the first to acknowledge that.
But Designated Survivor was designed to avoid those same challenges…
It was designed to never get caught in that position. This show works on three different prongs. So you have a terrorist attack and an FBI investigation into who did this attack and what would be the appropriate response – that’s the thriller aspect of the show. Then you have a family drama, of what happens to a family that is split up, or is moved into the White House overnight. What does that do to the dynamic of his marriage, how does it affect how he interacts and behaves with his children? That’s its own storyline. And there’s the political aspect – how do you stabilise the country after having its entire government wiped out? How do you rebuild the government and shore up the country on an international level?
Those are all things we’ll be dealing with throughout this first season. If at one point the political storyline is having difficulty, then all of a sudden the show can shift back to being a family drama for two episodes and giving a reason for the political thing to take over. It’s the same with the investigation. So the fact that three storylines are living within the show, all at the same time, gives the writers incredible flexibility to also react to what the audience is enjoying about the show. For those reasons, the show has a flexibility that I think is stronger than anything I’ve been a part of so far.
Sutherland wasn’t sure he wanted to do television before 24 changed his mind…
When I took 24, I wasn’t very clear on how it all worked. I remember thinking I didn’t really want to do a television show – and of course it ended up becoming the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor. I seem to land in certain situations. If I manage to get out of my own way, things can work out and 24 was the great lesson for that for me.
He now believes the small screen is the most exciting medium in entertainment…
When I started working, there were five studios in the US and all five studios were making 50 to 60 movies a year. Now there are barely three studios in the US and they’re making about 15 movies a year. And if you’re going to do one of those movies, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be wearing tights and a cape! So all of the movies I loved watching when I was a kid – whether it was The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Serpico, The French Connection, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment – those movies aren’t really getting made the way they were and that drama, that kind of storytelling has been absorbed by television, whether it’s 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City or Game of Thrones. The list is endless and the fact we’ve moved from three channels to four channels to 500 channels, content is king – and for the writers who want to tell real drama, television is where it is at right now.
From the books by Giles Blunt, Cardinal tells the story of the eponymous detective tasked with investigating the death of a young girl whose body is discovered in an abandoned mine. But as the case grows, a dark secret from his past threatens to derail the investigation.
Stars Billy Campbell and Karine Vanasse reveal why they were so impressed by the scripts and how the series will challenge viewers, and discuss the challenges of filming in treacherous conditions.
Cardinal is produced by Sienna Films and Entertainment One for CTV in Canada and is distributed internationally by eOne.
DQ speaks to broadcasters and producers about the state of the Canadian drama industry and finds a sector in positive mood when it comes to its place in the international market.
Stepping out of the shadow cast by the US, Canada has emerged as a powerful player in TV drama. From Orphan Black and Rookie Blue to Motive and Murdoch Mysteries, series produced in Canada are now on air around the world.
But amid a changing regulatory landscape, what domestic challenges are now facing broadcasters and producers – and what opportunities are they taking advantage of?
“There’s no question the Canadian industry, as is the case worldwide, has undergone a profound transformation due to changes in technology. But the good news is the industry overall is very healthy,” says Tracey Pearce, senior VP of specialty and pay at broadcast group Bell Media.
“We’re spending a lot of time thinking and talking about how TV is alive and well in Canada. Television continues to be very powerful but that’s not to suggest we don’t understand the importance of being in the digital space. We do, but we do ourselves a disservice as an industry by forgetting how powerful television is.”
Like broadcasters around the world, Bell Media looks to homegrown drama series to help define its channels, from general entertainment CTV (Motive, Saving Hope) to cable channels Space (Orphan Black, pictured top) and Bravo (crime drama 19-2).
But while Bell can enjoy the success that comes from airing some of Canada’s biggest original dramas, Pearce says she recognises the “nervousness” currently found within the production sector.
“That’s understandable given the technological changes worldwide and the new regulatory environment we are now in. People wonder what impact that will have on production,” she explains. “But we are as, if not more, committed to Canadian programming as we look to sharpen up our brands in this ‘pick and pay’ environment. While we recognise it’s always been a challenging production environment for independent producers in Canada, we’re still in it with both feet.”
The new regulations to which Pearce refers came into force on March 1, when TV providers in Canada were forced to introduce ‘skinny’ cable bundles for consumers, priced at C$25 (US$19) or less. This followed a ruling by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) last year that consumers should have a greater choice of – and access to cheaper – cable and satellite packages.
Viewers can now pick and pay for their own channel packages or opt for the basic bundle, which must include broadcast networks CBC, Global and CTV as well as certain regional channels.
As a result, questions are being asked about the future of some Canadian speciality channels and whether, like in the US, smaller networks will begin commissioning original drama in a bid to find their defining series – think AMC and Mad Men – in a bid to stay on the air.
“It’s certainly a changing landscape,” says Melissa Kajpust, head of creative development at pay TV network Super Channel. “We don’t anticipate this will affect our subscribers but it’s a landscape where no one can predict what will happen. Certainly people are going to be looking for good content, and that’s what we’re focused on finding.”
But according to Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO at prodco Shaftesbury, drama producers shouldn’t be worried. “There’s no question that it’s going to affect non-scripted factual and lifestyle producers, and it will also affect those broadcasters – but as drama producers it doesn’t affect us.
“What does affect us is the culmination of several years of consolidation, which means on the drama side we’re now down to just a handful of buyers. The uncertainty when you have so few buyers makes it tougher but, on the plus side, Canada has two new OTT services, Shomi and CraveTV.
“We’ve only seen one original commission from either (Bell Media-backed Crave’s comedy LetterKenny, which has been renewed for a second season) and it’s early days but, as they build their subscriber bases, we’re hopeful they’re going to become buyers of content.”
Shaftesbury’s slate includes CBC’s long-running crime drama Murdoch Mysteries, Super Channel’s original drama Slasher and period supernatural procedural Houdini & Doyle, a coproduction with the UK’s Big Talk Productions for UK commercial network ITV, Canada’s Global and US network Fox.
“The other slight concern,” Jennings says, “is there are so many channels, so many options, how do you cut through? It helps to have a big brand or comic book, a big star or a big showrunner. We’ve had great luck with (House creator) David Shore joining Houdini & Doyle. David coming on board got the show made, no question. But will everything soon need one of these big auspices to get a commission? Not every project necessarily needs them.”
Breakthrough Entertainment may have found another way. The Toronto-based producer was behind a new adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables, which starred Martin Sheen and aired on YTV in February. But it is another of its productions, Omni Television’s Blood and Water, that proved to be an interesting experiment when it premiered last year.
The eight-part cop drama aired in a mixture of English, Mandarin and Cantonese and featured a cast that was 80% Asian-Canadian. It has now been renewed for a second season of eight half-hour episodes, written by Diane Boehme, Al Kratina, Dan Trotta and Simu Liu.
“Because of the plethora of great dramas, you have to find new ways to cut through,” says Ira Levy, partner and executive producer at Breakthrough. “It starts with a great director or writer and a wonderful script, but the good news is there’s a voracious appetite for drama from around the world. The golden age allows for new models of content because there’s such a demand for stories.”
Of Blood and Water, he adds: “There’s a market of ex-pat Chinese and hundreds of millions of people (around the world) interested in seeing contemporary drama in a language they can relate to. That’s part of our strategic positioning but, first and foremost, it’s a great story that hasn’t been told in this way. You do something not because it’s different but because you believe in the story. If it has other elements that can cut through, that’s just a smart thing to do.”
A glance at the schedules of Canadian broadcasters – both free-to-air and pay TV – shows that US series are still widespread, but there is now a growing belief that homegrown series can go head-to-head with imports.
“They’re a little late but broadcasters are coming around to the idea you can have a pretty good Canadian drama slate now,” says David Cormican, executive VP of business development and production at Don Carmody Television. “So you’re seeing an influx of Canadian dramas taking off, doing multiple seasons and finding US buyers themselves.
“What’s more interesting is the Canadian consumer is watching these programmes without necessarily realising they are Canadian shows. Whereas before we had this negative stigma attached to Canadian dramas, the comment now is, ‘I didn’t realise it was Canadian,’ which we take as a compliment. It’s been tricky for many years because our largest trading partner is immediately to the south.”
Super Channel has, Kajpust notes, raised the bar in terms of its own original drama aspirations, leading to horror series Slasher and Van Helsing, a modern-day take on Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter starring Kelly Overton.
“The US will always influence Canada but it has changed,” she says. “Canadians are watching more Canadian programming and the other broadcasters are commissioning more Canadian series, so it’s a good time for writers and producers.”
But it’s only by partnering with US outlets, such as Chiller for Slasher and Syfy on Van Helsing, that Super Channel is able to do more expensive dramas.
Don Carmody is also building its US relationships, most notably with Freeform (formerly ABC Family) fantasy Shadowhunters, which has been renewed for a second season, and science-fiction drama Between, the first original Canadian series ordered by Netflix in partnership with Canada’s City.
Described by Cormican as “Lord of the Flies meets The Walking Dead – but without zombies,” Between is set in a small town where everyone over the age of 21 dies from a mysterious disease. Looking to build its coproduction slate, Netflix came on board after reading the first two scripts, and a second season is due to drop on July 1.
“Netflix was looking to explore this coproduction model and we were the guinea pig, but where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Cormican says. “Both Netflix and City are taking pride and ownership of the project. We have two very strong partners. They’re not always on the same page but we manage to find middle ground that works for everyone.”
Muse Entertainment has also built strong partnerships in the US, leading to its slate of TV movies for Hallmark Channel (including the Aurora Teagarden and Gourmet Detective franchises), Egyptian drama Tut for Spike and The Kennedys for Reelz. A sequel to the latter, called After Camelot, will see Katie Holmes reprise her role as Jackie Kennedy when shooting begins in May. Friends alum Matthew Perry has also been cast as Ted Kennedy.
“Most Canadian consumers are watching American programming most of the time anyway,” CEO Michael Prupas says. “The CBC is focused on doing programming that is distinctively Canadian and, as such, it tends to be a turn-off for most international broadcasters, with Canada not being the hottest girl at the dance.
“CTV and Global are happy and interested in programming sold to the US but they tend to put in the lesser part of the financing, which means the show is American-orientated and the driving force behind it is often the US company.”
Muse is also looking further afield, with projects in Germany and ambitions to work in the UK and France. Shaftesbury, too, is well placed internationally and Jennings says coproductions are now more important than ever to piece together financing.
“When you have fewer buyers in Canada, unless you’re going to pack up your tent and go home, you have to find other ways to raise finances,” she says. “But for many years, we’ve all taken advantage of Canada’s government support, tax credits and the Canadian Media Fund, so Canada took an unreasonable amount of the burden of financing shows. We’re going to start seeing coproductions where more money is brought to the table and Canada is the smaller piece of the puzzle.”
Fellow producer Incendo is also focusing on international coproductions. It’s currently in production on season two of Versailles, the English-language series produced with Capa Drama and Zodiak Fiction for French pay TV network Canal+. The period drama, which airs in Canada on Super Channel and recently debuted on BBC2 in the UK, is set in 1671 and follows France’s King Louis XIV during his first years in power when he made the decision to move his court to Versailles and construct the largest palace in Europe.
It is also developing Ice, in which a suburban woman turns to diamond theft following her divorce, for Bell Media. Writer Katie Ford (Miss Congeniality) is attached.
“I’ve been doing coproductions here and there for 25 years and now, over the past few years, the world has discovered coproduction,” says Incendo president Jean Bureau. “It’s great because minds are opening up to sharing ideas and having discussions on creative issues between two or three producers. When we talked about coproductions 10 years ago, people would freak out. Everybody wanted control. Now it’s very different. We’re competing with the very best productions from around the world, so Canadian producers must create compelling drama if we want broadcast partners to participate. It pushes us to be the best.”
Montréal producer-distributor Attraction Images’ forthcoming projects include crime drama Séquelles (titled McDougall in English), which is based on novels by Johanne Seymour and will air on Series+ in April. Among its other credits is medical drama Au Secours de Béatrice for TVA.
“Broadcasters want fiction because that’s the most addictive programming for viewers,” notes Louise Lantagne, the firm’s VP of fiction. “But here in Québec, they don’t really look for procedurals. They want character-driven stories over multiple seasons. It’s really tough.
“Coproduction in French is also more difficult than in English,” she adds. “In English, it’s organic to coproduce with the US, England or Australia. But here, if we’re not going to work with France, there are no opportunities for coproduction, which makes things difficult.”
However, there may be a solution in the form of rights exploitation. Attraction is producing a French-language version of US series Web Therapy, which starred Lisa Kudrow as a therapist who treats her clients via webcam. And it’s by selling rights to its own original formats, in lieu of coproduction, that the producer hopes to bring in extra income to devote to new series.
“If we’re looking for additional money, coproduction might not be the first option for us,” admits Chrystine Girard, Attraction VP of content rights management and international relations. “But we have dramas that have quality scripts so we can talk to other parties about producing remakes in English or other languages. This is where you can finance additional series, and it’s why I believe there will be more emphasis on exploitation of original content than ever before.”
The challenge going forward, then, is winning commissions from a select number of buyers while building the budgets modern audiences demand to see on screen. Muse’s Prupas admits he’s “nervous about what the future is going to bring. There’s too much supply coming down the pipeline but, at the moment, there’s a lot of demand as well.”
Don Carmody’s Cormican agrees Canadian drama is in a “huge boom cycle,” but warns producers shouldn’t get accustomed to the good life: “You have to practice some restraint and not expect the good times to roll all the time. And we have to be incredibly supportive of our government to ensure we have a strong incentive front.”
As for the broadcasters, Bell Media’s Pearce is just looking for the next Orphan Black: “That show was a huge risk – but what I remind myself is that the next Orphan Black is going to be nothing like Orphan Black. So we have to ask what the next big story is. You feel emboldened by success, and it has energised the Canadian production community to find the next big hit.”
Just as the traditional TV business was winding down for the holiday season, the industry’s SVoD giants unveiled plans for a slate of new scripted shows.
Netflix, for example, is planning a new series called Mindhunter with director David Fincher. Based on the 1996 book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series will be Fincher’s follow-up to House of Cards, the political series that put Netflix drama on the map.
House of Cards, meanwhile, will return for a fourth season on March 4.
Online rival Amazon also had big news concerning its origination plans. On the eve of the holiday season, it announced it was taking five primetime pilots to series – two one-hour dramas and three half-hour comedies.
The first of the new dramas is Good Girls Revolt, which follows a group of young female researchers working in a 1960s newsroom. A coproduction with TriStar Television, the show was inspired by Lynn Povich’s book The Good Girls Revolt and is written by Dana Calvo (Made in Jersey).
The second of Amazon’s greenlit dramas is political thriller Patriot, which follows the adventures of intelligence officer John Tavner. Assigned with preventing Iran from going nuclear, Tavner assumes a perilous ‘non-official cover’ – that of a mid-level employee at an industrial piping firm. Patriot is being written and directed by Steven Conrad (known for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).
In addition to its new commissions, Amazon also confirmed its renewal of a number of existing shows. These include the drama series Hand of God and The Man in the High Castle. According to Amazon, the latter (written by Frank Spotnitz) is the platform’s most-streamed original show yet.
All of this comes in addition to other Amazon projects such as a new series of crime drama Bosch and a previously announced David E Kelley drama called Trial, starring Billy Bob Thornton. In total, this means Amazon is doubling its slate of original primetime comedies and dramas from six to 12 as it begins 2016. On top of this, the streamer is also ratcheting up its commitment to children’s series.
Outside these SVoD announcements, the holiday season has been quiet in terms of greenlights. However, there have been a few announcements of interest.
Among these is the news that US cable channel Syfy has ordered a second season of space drama The Expanse. Based on a bestselling book series, the show is set 200 years in the future and follows the case of a missing young woman that brings a detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system that will expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.
The show has been getting solid but not spectacular ratings, attracting 1.6 million viewers per episode in live+3 ratings. However, Syfy clearly sees something worth supporting because it will also increase the number of episodes from 10 in season one to 13 in season two.
“The Expanse is firing on all cylinders creatively, building a passionate fanbase among viewers and critics alike, and delivering on Syfy’s promise of smart, provocative science-fiction entertainment,” said Dave Howe, president of Syfy and Chiller.
Still in the US, cable channel TNT has renewed its fantasy adventure The Librarians (a spin-off from the TV movie franchise of the same name) and crime dramas Murder In The First and Major Crimes. These will go into the 2016 line-up alongside previously renewed shows Rizzoli & Isles and The Last Ship and new arrivals Good Behavior, Animal Kingdom and The Alienist. The slate is designed to help TNT rebrand itself as an edgier network.
In the UK, public broadcaster BBC1 has announced a second season of Ordinary Lies, a Red Production Company drama that centres on a group of characters harbouring secrets. According to the BBC, the new series will centre on a different scenario and set of characters – reinforcing the current trend towards anthology series.
While the first season was set in a car showroom, the second will be based in the “HQ of a large, national sports goods company with an array of new, compelling and clandestine characters.” Season one performed well, bringing in an audience of around six million.
In other BBC news, the corporation has given a second season to Carnival’s historical drama The Last Kingdom but has cancelled cop show Cuffs after one season. The eight-part production attracted an audience of just over three million, which is not really strong enough to justify a renewal.
A BBC spokesman said: “We are very proud of Cuffs and would like to thank all those involved, but in order to create space for new shows and to keep increasing the range of BBC1 drama, the show will not be returning for a second season.” Almost exactly the same words were used to justify the axing of Atlantis and Our Zoo.
One of the more unusual media stories of the last few weeks was the news that Sky Arts in the UK is to make a one-off drama about a weird and wonderful road trip that pop icon Michael Jackson took with actors Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in 2011. Entitled Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon, the show is being produced by Little Rock Pictures and will reportedly star Joseph Fiennes as Jackson, Stockard Channing as Taylor and Brian Cox as Brando.
The decision to cast a white actor (Fiennes) as a black icon (Jackson) is an unusual one – so it will be interesting to see what kind of reception his performance gets. It comes at a time when the British TV industry is receiving regular criticism for its failure to support ethnic minority talent in front of and behind the camera.
In Canada, commercial broadcaster CTV has announced that there will be a fifth season of its popular supernatural medical drama Saving Hope. The show also airs on US cable channel Ion Television and Australian entertainment channel SoHo.
Also on the distribution front, Japan’s Wowow has acquired exclusive broadcast rights to NBC series Blindspot from Warner Bros International Television Distribution. Other recent Wowow series acquisitions from the US include The Player and Zoo.